Project creates 'global conversation' on religion

Sherry Rosen

Princeton NJ -- As she planned a major project on women, religion and the African diaspora, Marie Griffith reached out to dozens of scholars in different fields. Some studied Caribbean religion and history; others, African-American social history; and still others, African religion. But they had a common refrain: Nowhere was this subject a prime focus of study, where scholars from different disciplines could come together. And they looked to Princeton to change that fact.

Consensus quickly developed to create a "global conversation" that will take place over the next three years at Princeton's Center for the Study of Religion. Funded by a grant of about $700,000 from the Ford Foundation, this interdisciplinary journey of inquiry into "Women and Religious Change in the African Diaspora" attempts to focus long overdue attention on questions of race and gender in the traditional study of religion.

"The conversation is truly vital today, as growing numbers of people are beginning to analyze the role of religion in cultures in diverse lands," said Griffith, associate director of the center. "Yet many scholars told us that they had never been brought together to have a broad comparative discussion about their work in this area, and they were excited at the contribution we could make by doing this."

Data from the 2000 U.S. Census -- with many people identifying themselves as multiracial -- suggest that traditional conversations about "race" and the African diaspora blur important distinctions among people who share a common heritage. With its focus on religious and gender issues, the new project aims to help tell their stories in a more useful, fuller way.

Griffith said the spotlight will be on religious communities in the African diaspora of North and South America and the Caribbean, where increased ethnic and racial blending provides exciting examples of how belief and practice change over time and across populations, and how practitioners -- especially women -- navigate and frequently drive those changes. The project will focus especially on the ways in which people of African descent have influenced and reshaped Christianity and Islam, historically and in the present. A kick-off symposium, co-sponsored by the Program in African Studies and the Program in African-American Studies, took place on campus in February.

"Looking out at the symposium audience," Griffith said, "I could clearly see how many people of different cultural and racial backgrounds had come together in one room. It tells me that we are already reaching a very broad community."

The symposium hinted at the breadth of topics to be studied. Historian Anthea Butler, visiting research fellow from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, described how the transition of the Black Pentecostal Church from a working-class, separatist sect to a middle-class, civic-minded denomination was foreshadowed by the image of church mothers in smart suits and fur wraps going to the White House to visit Eleanor Roosevelt.

Anthropologist Deidre Crumbley, visiting research fellow from North Carolina State University, sought to understand the limits on women's participation in several independent Yoruba churches in Nigeria, theorizing that these constraints stemmed from an "unholy alliance" of traditional Yoruba culture and European colonialism, among other things.

Components of the three-year project will include postdoctoral fellowships for visiting scholars, a collaborative research team coordinated by Griffith and professor Barbara Savage of the University of Pennsylvania, and a series of public lectures and symposia. Participants will include scholars of religion and African, African-American and women's studies, as well as those from traditional disciplines within the humanities and social sciences.

"We are tapping into scholars doing innovative, creative work," Griffith said. "We will be giving them new resources to continue their research, plus encouragement to have conversations with each other about the implications of that research."

Both undergraduate and graduate students will be eligible for research grants for study in the intersecting areas of religion, race, ethnicity and gender, and new freshman seminars are expected to be created. Activities developed during the grant period will enable the center to continue programs emphasizing race and gender and will strengthen the University's long-term commitment to diversity and inclusiveness, said sociology professor Robert Wuthnow, the center's director.

Scholars and theologians from Africa and the Americas, as well as Princeton faculty from more than a dozen departments and programs, participate in the center's ongoing weekly religion and culture workshops. Together, they are formulating questions that breach the boundaries of the conventional categories of religion, race and gender.

Participants will ask how power is measured and defined within religious organizations, and how it is displayed. They also will explore the effects of religious faith on activism and the implications for public policy. Above all, they will ask how people are able and willing to reinvent the religious traditions that once oppressed them.

"The study of African and diaspora religion is rich with implications for the wider study of religion," Wuthnow said.

The Center for the Study of Religion was founded in 1999, continuing the activities of the former Center for the Study of American Religion and promoting scholarship on religions in other societies. It is funded by the Lilly Endowment, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Ford Foundation and the Carpenter Foundation, and through the Anniversary Campaign for Princeton.


March 25, 2002
Vol. 91, No. 20
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